Today’s conservatives aren’t Mandela fans

by Stephen LaRose

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.”
—British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, addressing the Parliament of South Africa, Cape Town, Feb. 3, 1960

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper boarded the plane to Johannesburg to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral, no one in the Ottawa press corps asked him about an organization he was a member of in 1989.

It’s just as well. If they had asked, they might have found themselves tossed out of the custom-painted Airbus 10,000 metres above the south Atlantic.

But paying attention to who Harper was associating with all those years ago defines today’s conservatives, from the prime minister to Calgary MP Rob Anders — a guy who once voted against giving Mandela honorary Canadian citizenship, and who still considers the man described as Africa’s Lincoln, George Washington and Ghandi combined to be a terrorist.


In his response to Harold Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” speech, South Africa Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd said apartheid — an increasingly confusing system of regulating people by race that determined who could live where, who could work where, who could dine with or drink with or date whom — was, in fact, a ‘good neighbour’ policy towards millions of black South Africans.

“We call ourselves European, but actually we represent the white men of Africa,” Verwoerd said. “They are the people not only in the Union but through major portions of Africa who brought civilization here, who made the present developments of black nationalists possible by bringing them education, by showing them this way of life, by bringing in industrial development, by bringing in the ideals which western civilization has developed itself.”

Apartheid, to Verwoerd — and to South Africa’s ruling and business class — was just the White Man’s Burden. No need to thank them.

Less than two months later, on March 21, 1960, thousands of black South Africans staged a peaceful protest in front of a police station in Sharpsville, destroying their government-issued internal passport books and asking to be arrested. South African police responded with gunfire, killing 69. That set in motion more than three decades of a national state of emergency with government repression, thousands of people killed, tens of thousands jailed and millions of lives broken. All so the white minority Afrikaans could live not in peace, but in domination.

Apartheid’s legal basis was in fact Canadian. The 1948 legislation creating South Africa’s Group Areas Act was based on Canada’s Indian Act of 1919: the pass laws, the prohibition against leaving designated areas, the Indian agent’s total control over the indigenous people’s lives, and the ban on voting or even hiring lawyers were all part of that legislation.

But unlike South Africa, Canada was slowly changing its policies.

The more onerous parts of the Indian Act had been amended in the 1950s, at the initiative of Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. At a meeting of Commonwealth leaders in London in March 1961, Diefenbaker successfully lobbied to add a paragraph to a communiqué to be signed by all representative governments: “For all Commonwealth Governments, it should be an objective policy to build their countries a structure of society which offers equality of opportunity for all, irrespective of race, colour, or creed.”

That was too much for Verwoerd, who walked out of the meeting, and South Africa left the British Commonwealth.

One of those caught in that mess was a young lawyer named Nelson Mandela, who headed the African National Congress, which favoured true democratic rule — one person, one vote — and the end of apartheid. The Afrikaans and English settlers didn’t like that idea, since there were 20 million of ‘them’ and about three million of ‘us’. After 10 years of detention, torture, and internal banning, Mandela and a few others founded an armed branch of the ANC, code-named MK.

Mandela was a great orator and a brilliant lawyer, but as a military commander he was pretty inept. It was pretty easy for South African police (maybe or maybe not with the aid of the Central Intelligence Agency) to arrest Mandela and his cohorts and put them on trial for treason and terrorism in late 1963. In June 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labour. (Thank heaven for small mercies: the presiding judge had the option of the death penalty.)

That, thought Verwoerd, was the end of that.


White South African governments still had two cards to play that helped them cling to power until the early 1990s: the country’s resources (especially diamonds) and its fervent anti-communism (it backed the vicious MNR in neighbouring Mozambique, a communist country). Those bonafides, along with the façade of western democracy — even though more than 20 million had no say in the government due to their skin colour — were enough to mute opposition from world leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

And then there was a young man named Stephen Harper.

In 1989, Harper was a member of the Northern Foundation, an umbrella group for right-wing extremists in Canada1 which worked extensively with the South African embassy in Ottawa to promote the regime.

It was a classic example of politically zigging when everyone else — including conservatives — was zagging. Under the Mulroney government, Canada was a leader in the international fight against apartheid.

“I think the bottom line is that these were the kinds of issues that interested Brian Mulroney and myself and Flora MacDonald and Ray Hnatyshyn,” former foreign minister Joe Clark recently told The Toronto Star’s Bill Schiller.

“It’s not the kind of issue that engages the attention of the present government,” Clark added.

A lot of Mandela’s issues don’t engage contemporary conservatives. Mandela supported unions and condemned poverty. Today’s conservatives push policies that make the rich richer and they kick unions every chance they get. Mandela liberalized South Africa’s abortion laws, because he supported women’s rights. Many conservatives take the opposite position. Mandela put South Africa on the path to free health care. Canadian conservatives push for increased health care privatization.

Mandela, obviously, fought for racial equality. Canada’s conservatives have had a rocky relationship with Canada’s First Nations, to say the least: cancelling the Kelowna Accord, picking fights with reserves in crisis and disregarding indigenous concerns about the environment.

It seems unlikely that if Nelson Mandela had the luxury of leading a wealthy, peaceful country, he would’ve cancelled universal public daycare, as the Harper government did in 2006.


By the time Mandela was released from jail in 1990, South Africa was as much an international pariah as North Korea is today. All sporting contacts were cut; its cultural and travel industries were boycotted, and white South Africans had replaced “commies” as the new enemy in popular culture (remember Lethal Weapon 2?). Most devastating: businesses were pressured by most western governments to direct investment elsewhere.

The collapse of the communist Soviet Union, the international sanctions, the spiralling costs of maintaining apartheid (not to mention the lost economic potential of not letting the majority black population become middle-class consumers), and the worst recession in the country’s apartheid-era history combined to force the Afrikaans-supported government to the bargaining table.

South Africa’s transition to majority rule was relatively short, but tough, and not without problems. Today’s South Africa may not be the paradise of either the Afrikaaners or of the African National Congress’ dreams. The society still faces violence, poverty, and other problems in the aftermath of three centuries of racism and two generations of a national security state in which human rights and the rule of law were as arbitrary as the weather.

South Africa never had anything resembling a charter of rights in its constitution until 1994.

But Nelson Mandela, through his example, showed a way past all the hurt and the pain caused by three centuries of racism.

In the end, your society isn’t really civilized if you have to use uncivilized means to preserve it. That was the flaw in Prime Minister Verwoerd’s argument in 1960.

The wind of change has blown apartheid into the history books. One wonders what Stephen Harper would say about Nelson Mandela if his old buddies in the Northern Foundation ever invited him to a reunion.


1. You can find more on the links between Harper and the racist/skinhead/violence-prone extreme of Canada’s political right in Trevor Harrison’s book Of Passionate Interest: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada.